When John McClane last yipee-ki-yayed for the NYPD 12 years ago, you could bring giant cans of Aqua Net on an airplane and forget a bag on the Metro without causing a panic. In Live Free or Die Hard, however, the sarcastic cop who tends to find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time isn’t taking on the Axis of Evil. Instead, he must contend with the revenge of the nerds: Hackers are systematically taking down the country’s computer infrastructure, and they can outmaneuver the flummoxed government in less time than it takes you to delete your spam.
Underworld’s Len Wiseman directs this fourth installment of the nearly two-decade-old Die Hard franchise, which means there are a few big worries. One, star Bruce Willis isn’t a youngster anymore. (Fun fact: The films also serve as a history of his receding hairline.) Two, by the time a movie series reaches the trilogy mark, it’s usually time to stop the sequel madness. And three, well, both Underworld and Underworld: Evolution sucked. Now consider that Live Free or Die Hard is the first of the series not rated R, and the odds just increased that you’d be better off saving your money and waiting to see the also-PG-13 Transformers instead.
Though the movie does have its flaws—an overlong running time being one of the more significant—it still should satisfy, uh, die-hard fans. The action gets off to an explosive start when the feds ask McClane (Willis) to bring a young hacker named Matt Farrell (Justin Long) into custody. Farrell is all coolness and quips when McClane shows up at his dark apartment—until people start shooting through his window and a keyboard-triggered bomb nearly wipes out the place. It turns out that not only have a few members of an elite group of computer geniuses recently been taken out the same way, but the government’s cyber-security has been breached, hence the FBI’s interest in Farrell. When he witnesses the breadth of the problem—transportation systems going haywire, cell-phone towers blanking, utilities shutting off—Farrell tries to keep McClane one step ahead of Armageddon’s evil mastermind, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), and his smokin’ sidekick, Mai (Maggie Q).
The movie’s core idea of technological terrorism was developed by Mark Bomback from a 1997 Wired article titled “A Farewell to Arms.” The script continually stretches credibility—Gabriel has transferred all of the country’s money to his hard drive! Natural gas can be rerouted to a power plant with a few keystrokes!—but even if you sometimes balk, this 2007 version of a Y2K nightmare is pretty interesting. More important, for a movie that’s driven by talk such as “Isolate the frequency!” there’s nearly continual action, competently pulled off by Wiseman. Though all the gunfire, which practically serves as a soundtrack, can get a bit tiresome, and nearly every place McClane goes ends up looking like a war zone, very cool scenes such as a Harrier jet hugging a bridge or, as Farrell puts it, McClane “kill[ing] a helicopter with a car” keep the franchise on its popcorn-worthy track.
And Willis? He’s buff, bald, and handles the stunts just fine. He and Long (yeah, the guy from the Mac ads) aren’t the greatest duo in action-flick history—and the grimacing Olyphant at times makes an unintentionally hilarious villain—but their sardonic delivery of Bomback’s good-enough jokes keeps things amusing. Long’s meager thunder is stolen, though, in a few late-chapter scenes that ingeniously include Kevin Smith in a cameo as the Warlock, a perfectly drawn smarter-assed-than-thou fanboy hacker who refers to his basement as a “command center.” Smith and Willis have such a snappy, antagonistic chemistry that a rematch seems likely—though not quite as inevitable as another sequel.